By Allyn Fisher-Ilan
BOSTON (Reuters) - Can academia step in to resolve a ragingconflict in places where diplomacy lags?
That's just what a team of urban planners and sociologistsat the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has set out todiscover, using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as alaboratory for a unique experiment.
On Friday MIT, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, announcedthe winners of a global contest aimed at choosing the mostinnovative proposals for developing Jerusalem, a city at theheart of this Middle Eastern conflict.
They chose four teams of students and professors inarchitecture and international affairs from among some 1,100entries to the contest dubbed "Just Jerusalem," set in motionlast year.
The winning proposals include a plan to collect rainwaterrunoff as a potential solution to water shortages in the aridregion, and ideas for creating a network of services forPalestinian areas isolated from much of the city by a barrierIsrael has built in the last decade due to security concerns.
A third project envisages construction of a jointIsraeli-Palestinian orphanage in Jerusalem, while a fourthcalls for making the city a part of a Mediterranean belt thatwould include most key cities in Arab countries in the region.
The winners, men and women from the United States, Austria,Malaysia and the Palestinian territories, will spend threemonths this fall on a $50,000 (25,000 pound) fellowship at MITtrying to turn their ideas into a workable blueprint, saidproject director Diane Davis, an author and sociologist at MIT.
A nine-member jury that chose the winners included a formerIsraeli deputy mayor of Jerusalem and a Palestinian scholar.
Jerusalem, a city holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews, isa core issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel claims the entire city as its indivisible capital,though this is not recognized internationally. Palestinianswant part of the city as the capital of a state they have beenpromised under a U.S.-backed peace plan.
Israelis and Palestinians have, largely with European aid,launched several joint projects in recent years aimed atfostering greater grass-roots cooperation, though violenceoften gets in the way of applying some of their ideas.
Whether MIT could fare any better at resolving conflictthrough joint communal work remains to be seen.
Davis said the university's name might give it some impact,particularly if it focuses more on issues of urban developmentrather than the complex politics behind the border disputes andviolence that fuel the conflict.
She said she thought academics could roll up their sleevesand play a greater role in trying to get both sides to discusssolutions to the daily issues of running a city whose futurehas proven a huge stumbling block in Western-backed efforts towin a peaceful solution.
Jerusalem, she told Reuters in an interview, "is kind ofthe Gordian knot around which Middle East peace revolves orgets entangled. We thought why not go straight to the heart ofthe matter. ... Let's think about the city and what would makepeoples' lives better."
Davis said she hopes that if the experiment works,something similar might be tried in other cities in conflict.
(Editing by Jason Szep and Xavier Briand)